Backfiring motorcycles trigger chaos in Times Square as false alarms grip US in wake of mass shootings

Just like the deadly gun violence across America, false alarms of active shooters are starting to become commonplace

Chris Riotta
New York
Wednesday 07 August 2019 21:49 BST
Panic erupts in Times Square amid false reports of active shooter

Georgina Lonton was watching a street artist create a painting for her son near Times Square on Tuesday night when people began screaming about a gunman headed their way.

“We looked to Times Square and the commotion and a sea of people running towards us,” she told The Independent. “It took time to process and then we tuned into people screaming there was a shooter coming. You couldn’t have stood still as the flow of people was too strong.”

She and a friend quickly grabbed their five children and double stroller while attempting to stick together amid the fleeing crowds. As they rushed out of the area, she said she saw another woman’s baby get knocked out of her arms.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a shooter: motorcycle engines backfiring as they passed through Times Square caused several visitors to believe they heard gun shots, the New York Police Department confirmed. But Ms Lonton wasn’t alone in fearing the worst: Americans experienced false alarms of active shooter situations nationwide after mass shootings over the weekend in both El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

In Utah, the Valley Fair mall was evacuated on Tuesday night after a sign fell and made a loud noise, causing patrons to mistake the sound for gunfire.

“As you can imagine, there's a heightened sense of fear right now with things that have gone on around our country," West Valley City Police spokesperson Roxeanne Vainuku told local media outlets shortly after, adding: “People were in a full-on panic.”

Residents in Baton Rouge, Louisiana also feared the worst as police rushed to a local Wal-Mart. A branch of the chain store was the site of the deadly shooting in El Paso on Saturday, where a gunman killed 22 people after reportedly posting an anti-immigrant screed online.

A spokesperson for the city of Baton Rouge later told The Independent there was never an active shooter situation, but that at least one person was being treated for minor injuries after people fled the scene.

Police said an altercation had occurred between two men, one of whom may have been seen with a handgun. "When customers saw the handgun, panic set in, and customers were running and screaming while trying to exit the store," the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office told local news outlets. “Given the recent events in El Paso and Dayton, and given the initial information we received via 911 calls and witnesses exiting the store, we responded with what we feel is appropriate."

Then on Monday afternoon, the USA Today offices in Virginia were evacuated as police responded to reports of a man with a gun near the publication's headquarters. The FBI quickly confirmed those reported were mistaken, and the offices were cleared without any incident or harm.

Ms Lonton, a New Jersey resident who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, said she was “not totally alien to these situations” and that her “kids got the biggest fright”.

“We had taken precautions and written my cell number on all five kids' wrists in case we got separated. It can easily happen we learnt last night,” she said. “My little guy didn’t get his painting with his chosen colours so he then was so upset, but I think that was shock too.”

Just like the mass shootings that have become all too common in America, resulting false alarms like the ones seen this week are nothing new.

The Friday before a gunman stormed the Wal-Mart in El Paso, the City Attorney’s Office in San Diego, California was evacuated due to an inaccurate report of an active shooter sent out across an internal safety application shared with local police.

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“Thank God, it was false,” Evon Perryman, a city victim’s services co-ordinator, told NBC San Diego. “Someone said those two scary words, ‘active shooter’ so I didn't get scared; I remembered the training I had.”

As for Ms Lonton, getting swept up in the false alarm at Times Square reminded her just how easily friends and families can be separated during a terrifying situation.

“But you can’t live in fear,” she said, “it can’t define you.”

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